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After two centuries, D.C. residents may get vote

Call the nation's capital home, and for some 200 years you have paid taxes and gone to war for your country but you didn't get a vote in Congress.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Call the nation's capital home, and for some 200 years you have paid taxes and gone to war for your country but you didn't get a vote in Congress.

Residents of the District of Columbia have chafed over their second-class status, and for nearly a decade many have displayed "taxation without representation" license plates on their cars to signal their outrage.

All that could change with key votes this week in the Senate.

Debate opened Monday on a bill to give the 600,000 people of Washington D.C. a full vote in the House. A new Democratic president, Barack Obama, and heftier Democratic majorities in Congress have improved the prospects for the decades-long effort that would certainly ensure another Democrat lawmaker in Congress.

Democrats outnumber Republicans by some 4-to-1 in the capital.

In a bit of horsetrading to offset the Democratic pickup, the bill would award a fourth House seat to Republican-leaning Utah, which narrowly missed getting that extra seat after the 2000 national census. With the two new seats, the House would have 437 representatives.

The time is ripe, said Ilir Zherka, executive director of the advocacy group DC Vote, to end a situation where "we are the only capital of a democracy on the planet that denies voting representation in the national legislature."

It's been that way since the Organic Act of 1801 when Congress took over control of the newly created capital on the Potomac but did not provide residents with voting rights.

The 23rd Amendment, ratified in 1961, gave D.C. residents the right to vote in presidential elections, and the 1973 Home Rule Act provided for the direct election of the mayor and other city officials.

But a constitutional amendment approved by Congress in 1978 that would have given D.C. residents representation in both the House and the Senate failed to be ratified by the necessary three-fourths of state legislatures.

Opponents argue that the constitutional amendment route is still the only legitimate way to go, pointing to Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution, which says members of the House should be chosen "by the people of the several states." The District of Columbia, of course, is not a state.

On the other side, supporters cite language in the Constitution that gives Congress legislative authority over the District "in all cases whatsoever." They contend that for 200 years federal courts have framed the District's laws in terms of those that apply to the states.

Democrats could change bill's fate
Congress almost passed the bill to give the district a full vote in the House in 2007; it sailed through the House by a comfortable margin but then fell three votes short of the 60 votes needed to get past opponents in the Senate.

But much has changed since then. Democrats, who overwhelmingly support the legislation, increased their majority in the Senate by at least seven, to 58-41. Of the eight Republicans who voted to advance the bill in 2007, seven are back. And unlike former President George W. Bush, who threatened to veto the bill, Obama supports it.

"We are very optimistic that we are going to have the votes" Tuesday, when Senate supporters will again try to clear that 60-vote threshold to advance the bill toward a final vote later in the week, Zherka said.

Senate approval would send the bill to the House, which could take it up in early March. With the president's signature, D.C. residents would elect a representative with full voting rights from January, 2011.

The district has been represented since 1991 by Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton. Norton, who, with five other delegates from island territories, can vote in committees and on some amendments on the House floor but not on final passage of legislation.